When I was just a young pup, having been unceremoniously chucked out of grad school before it even started, I happened upon the scrapbook of Elisabeth Freeman’s activist career that my mother had lovingly kept. Well, you can imagine! I was obsessed, and unemployed. Poring over the scrapbook night after night, I found an article buried in the section on the February 1913 Hike from Newark to Washington DC that gave me an idea.
The headline reads, “Suffrage Hiker Stirs Baltimore with Cigarette” (Evening Telegram Feb 27? 1913) with a subtitle “Miss Freeman, English Militant, Startles Assemblage at Banquet to Marchers.” Quoting the article, “When Miss Freeman, an ardent English militant suffragette, tried to hurl a brick at the head of Premier Asquith, and another through a window in the House of Parliament, she caused less excitement than she did among the local suffragettes when she calmly extracted a cigarette from a box, lit it, and puffed away while at a banquet. Miss Freeman was unmindful of the glances darted at her from all angles. She puffed away until only the stump was left and then she lit another.”
The report continues, “The hikers are now on the march to Laurel, twenty miles away, where they expect to spend the night. They don’t expect to receive another welcome like the one they got in Baltimore until they reach Washington.” (It turns out they didn’t get much of a welcome in Washington.)
OK, what to make of this story? First of all, there is no evidence that Elisabeth hurled rocks at anyone much less the PM. If she had, it’s likely she would have been in jail for a long time, and anyway, the rock throwing phase in England was mostly after she left, when the Pankhursts were tired of getting beaten up and decided to disrupt business as usual more surreptitiously. But the violent aspect of militancy was always good copy and Elisabeth herself was not afraid to comment to the press about it.
Now for speculation. As far as I know, Elisabeth was not a smoker, but I could see her being provocative with all those stuffy society dames. And remember, she had just hiked from Newark to Baltimore in the cold. From all accounts, it’s apparent that this hike was no picnic and by then tempers had started to fray. And if you were daring enough to walk hundreds of miles for the cause, then you were daring enough to light up, optics be damned.
I found a photo of a banquet with EF as the main speaker; was that a cigarette in her hand? It was actually a photo of a banquet in Wilmington, Delaware dated 1912, and probably no cigarette, but there she was calm as though she had just finished a cig.
Here’s the funny thing about this story though: I thought I could leverage this story and photo into funding my research. At the time there was enough of a women’s movement to exploit and Virginia Slims was a cigarette designed just for women (“Now you have your own cigarette.”) They had a series of great ads which referenced women in history stepping out of line for a smoke. I thought, “Perfect! They will certainly want the rights to this photograph of a banquet with her as speaker, calmly smoking a cigarette. It would fund my research trips and give me time to write a book. Pay dirt!” I remember having an ethical twinge about exploiting the exploitation and encouraging smoking, which I abhorred, but only a twinge, because it was a real story. Needless to say, I never heard back from Virginia Slims and it appears that they made up their history anyway. A brilliant ad campaign if you ignored its aim of getting women to smoke. My naivete makes me laugh all these years later.
And Elisabeth, what a dame!
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